How Mother Got Her Day


Mrs. Jarvis kept house in Grafton for Lillie and for Granville, who now had taken to drink. Despite her poor eyesight, Lillie had struggled through Grafton High School. She worked part time, played the piano, and composed some music and poetry. At times she expressed grudging admiration for her sister. Of a paper Anna had prepared for an insurance convention, Lillie wrote: “It surprises me that anyone bearing our name is capable of rendering a production so fine. I almost feel like asking you if you really did compose it. Had I have read the same article in a newspaper or book, not even knowing its author, I think it would have commanded my interest and held it so that I would have been eager to read on to the end.”

But Lillie also despised Anna for monopolizing their mother’s love. In 1900 she complained that “Over the past five years it has been your aim to render me virtually Motherless. … You [are] the cause of my sickness. … Nothing would help and encourage me like your death, for you are the one barrier between me and all I deserve.”

“I did not suppose,” she wrote in another letter, “anyone gave me more than a passing thought at Easter. I suppose you read in the papers where that leper in the hospital begged them to give him poison instead of leaving him in solitude. It would be just as reasonable for me to do the same, for I am as much a lone stranger as if I were spending my first week in Chicago. My heart aches every hour. …”

In the face of Lillie’s attacks, Anna urged her mother ”… to love her more than any of us, and you know I have never tried to influence you against her. I would never think of such a thing, for I know you have love enough for us all to have our share. Give her the best of all and everything, for she has so little, and can enjoy so much less. I wish she would let me be kind to her and do for her, but she will not.” Granville died on New Year’s Eve, 1902. He had been an invalid for five years and Mother Jarvis convinced both Claude and Anna that she had expended her “vitality” in caring for him. Neither Anna nor her mother preserved any record of his funeral for the family papers.


Turn-of-the-century songs like these, all of them in dead earnest, had such a cumulative emetic effect that by 1919 two sated lyricists produced a spiky little parody of the genre: Homeward to their mother, two working men did come, Weary with their honest toil and lighted up with rum. Supper was not ready. One aim’d a brutal blow, When the blue-eyed baby stopped them, saying, “Brothers, don’t do so.” Chorus: Don’t swat yer mother, boys, just ‘cause she ‘s old! Don’t mop the floor with her face Think how her love is a treasure of gold, Shining thro’ shame and disgrace. Don’t put the rocking-chair next to her eye, Don’t bounce the lamp off her bean! Angels are watching you up in the sky, Don’t swat yer mother, it’s mean!”


Mrs. Jarvis maintained the home in Grafton until 1904, when she moved in with her son Claude. She already was suffering from the dropsy that soon would kill her. By early May, 1905, she was dying. The children gathered. Her eldest, Dr. Josiah Jarvis, attempted to assist the Philadelphia doctors Claude and Anna had summoned.

The night before she died, Mrs. Jarvis, who had seen so many of her children die, had a dream of “Jesus of Nazareth passing by on the other side of the street, with a whole lot of little children. I asked the nurse to help me to the window to see them.” That night she crossed the street and joined her children.

“What a loving privilege it was,” Anna wrote in a minutely detailed typescript account of her mother’s last days, “for my precious Mother’s eldest daughter to perform the last, loving service to her body. There was no emaciation; her repose was that of a peaceful sleep; her pure, sweet form [that] of a child. Her glory seemed to be in death, which [she] had accepted as a reward and beautiful promise; it all seemed victory and majesty, and triumph.”